How 'Nostradomo' envisions the upcoming NFL season
SPOILER ALERT. I'm about to tell you what's going to happen in the NFL this season. So, if you'd prefer not to know that the Raiders are going to beat the Vikings in the Super Bowl, or that Michael Vick is going to be the league MVP, or that Jerry Jones is going to fire Jason Garrett in the second quarter of the Cowboys' Week 9 game against Arizona, or that Johnny Manziel is going to become the first player in history to take a selfie during a touchdown run, turn to another page.
Otherwise, read on.
The Raiders beating the Vikings in Super Bowl XLIX? Really?
Nah. I was just messin' with you. The logical pick right now would be a rematch between the Seahawks and Broncos. With the exception of wide receiver Golden Tate, the Seahawks return most of the key pieces from last year's title team. As long as Peyton Manning doesn't get salmonella, the Broncos again are going to put up 35-plus points per game, and their defense should be better with the additions of DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib. But in the 48-year history of the Super Bowl, the same two teams have met in back-to-back games just once. That was the Cowboys and Bills in 1993-94. In the last 20 years, only three teams have even managed to make back-to-back Super Bowl appearances - the Patriots in 2004-05, the Broncos in 1998-99 and the Packers in 1997-98.
So even though I have the Seahawks and Broncos 1-2 in my power rankings right now, I'm going to play the odds and bet that neither of them makes it back, which means it's almost certain both of them will. But I'm going to go with Arizona and Indianapolis. The Cardinals will become the first host team to qualify for the Super Bowl. They'll win the game, but the victory parade will be pushed back 2 weeks to give the retirees out there extra time to get to the parade route.
The Cardinals. They had the very same 10-6 record as the Eagles last year. They won seven of their last nine games, including a Week 16 win at Seattle. They have one of the league's top defenses. They finished seventh in points allowed, sixth in yards allowed, sixth in sacks, fifth in takeaways and first against the run. Carson Palmer's propensity for throwing interceptions lessened as the season went along and he became more familiar with Bruce Arians' offense. He averaged one every 20.3 pass attempts in the first eight games, one every 36 attempts in the last eight. Andre Ellington is a versatile running back who averaged 5.5 yards per carry and 9.5 yards per catch. Yes, the Cardinals.
* Will Chip Kelly end up regretting his decision to release DeSean Jackson?
I don't think so. Every chance he got during the offseason, Kelly made sure to mention all of the man coverage the Eagles saw last season. He was concerned with the way bigger corners like the Saints' Keenan Lewis were able to manhandle Jackson at the line of scrimmage and delay his entry into routes. Kelly, like many of the league's other offensive coaches, feels you need bigger wideouts to do battle with the league's big, physical corners. Hence, the drafting of Jordan Matthews. Hence, the departure of Jackson, even after an 82-catch, 1,332-yard, nine-touchdown season.
* How will Jackson do in Washington? Will he make the Redskins a playoff contender?
If he stays healthy, Jackson should put up decent numbers. But he's going to be RG3's third target, behind Pierre Garcon, who had a league-high 113 catches last year, and behind second-year tight end Jordan Reed, who caught 45 passes as a rookie in just nine games. It will be interesting to see how new coach Jay Gruden tries to get the ball to Jackson. Jackson is a dangerous deep threat. But even though Griffin has a strong arm, the deep ball hasn't really been one of his strengths. He completed just 26 percent of his attempts of 20 yards or more last year. As far as Jackson making them a contender, well, he'll definitely help their passing attack. But the interior of their offensive line is shaky and they still have holes on defense, particularly in the secondary. The Redskins had a 96.1 opponent passer rating last year. I think 8-8 is the best they can hope for.
* Is there anybody in the NFC East who can beat the Eagles, or is a second straight division title a fait accompli?
Nothing in the NFL is a fait accompli. If the Eagles manage to stay as healthy as they did last year, I don't think anyone in the division is going to challenge them. But that's a big if, no matter how much sleep they get, no matter how much they stretch before bed, no matter how many smoothies they chug. You can do things to lower the risk of soft-tissue injuries, but there's nothing you can do about torn ACLs, ruptured Achilles' tendons, torn biceps, dislocated shoulders and concussions. They happen.
The Cowboys' offensive line should be better with the addition of first-round pick Zack Martin. Tony Romo had a plus-21 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio last year but is coming off major back surgery. On defense, a unit that finished 26th in points allowed has lost seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Ware (cap casualty) and middle linebacker Sean Lee (yet another knee injury).
The Giants' offensive line is still a mess, and will be as long as Will Beatty is their left tackle. Which probably means another ton of interceptions for Eli Manning. On defense, the Giants signed every cornerback with a pulse they could find. But general manager Jerry Reese always has built the team's defense around the pass-rush. And unless Jason Pierre-Paul returns to 2011 form, their pass rush doesn't look very formidable right now. Figure both the Cowboys and Giants for 6-10.
* I'm assuming you were just kidding about Vick being the league MVP. What's going to happen to him with the Jets? Will he spend the season as Geno Smith's backup? Or will he beat out Smith for the starting job?
The Jets don't want him to beat out Smith for the starting job. This isn't an open competition like it was last year in Philadelphia between Vick and Nick Foles. They want Smith, who had a league-worst 66.5 passer rating and a minus-9 TDs-to-interceptions differential as a rookie, to be their season-opening starter. And that likely will be the case unless he completely falls on his face this summer, which certainly could happen. Bottom line: Rex Ryan's job is on the line this season. Another playoff-less season and he'll probably be in the unemployment line in January. So, I suspect Smith will be on a short leash. If he struggles early, it wouldn't surprise me if Vick is the starter by Week 6 when the Jets play the Broncos.
* Every year, at least one double-digit loser does a rags-to-riches turnaround. Last season, it was the Eagles and the Chiefs. Who has the best chance to do it this year?
First and foremost, the Falcons. After four playoff appearances in the previous 5 years, after making it to the NFC Championship Game the year before, the Falcons nosedived to 4-12 last year. But they upgraded their lines and have both of their top wideouts - Julio Jones and Roddy White - back healthy, and should be a playoff contender again. The Rams weren't a 4-12 team last year. They were 7-9. But they had an outstanding draft, and if quarterback Sam Bradford can stay healthy, the NFC West is going to be fun to watch.
* Will Johnny Manziel be the Browns' season-opening starting quarterback?
No. Brian Hoyer will be. But I think the Browns will have a package of plays for Manziel early on and give him eight to 10 snaps a game. By midseason, assuming he works hard and doesn't fall asleep in meetings and dedicates himself to football, he might be the starter. But Hoyer isn't going to roll over and hand him the job.
* Will the Redskins still be the Redskins this season? Or will Dan Snyder buckle to pressure and change the team's nickname to something like the Crooked Politicians or the Snyders?
Snyder is trying to make nice with the Native Americans who object to his team's racist nickname. He'll give them land. He'll give them season tickets in the end zone. But he's not going to get rid of the Redskins' name. And commissioner Roger Goodell isn't inclined to put any pressure on him.
* What coaches are on the hot seat heading into the season?
There are four, maybe five. At the top of the list along with the Jets' Ryan is the Cowboys' Garrett. Unless the Cowboys surprise me and make the playoffs this season, this almost certainly will be Garrett's last season. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross almost fired Joe Philbin last year for his role - or lack of one - in the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin affair. If the Dolphins miss the playoffs again, Philbin is almost certainly history. Same with the Raiders' Dennis Allen, who needs to show improvement after back-to-back 4-12 seasons. The Steelers are a patient organization. But if they miss the playoffs for the third straight year, Mike Tomlin could be in trouble. I didn't include the Giants' Tom Coughlin. Unless he decides to retire after the season, I can't see the Maras and Tischs firing a man who has won two of the last seven Super Bowls.
* Will Michael Sam make the Rams' season-opening roster?
Right now, I'd say no. The Rams are deep at defensive end. I think Sam ends up spending the year on the team's practice squad.